Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Monday the government will have to work harder to win public support for a plan to burn plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel in Japan’s nuclear plants, following the rejection in a plebiscite Sunday of the use of MOX fuel in Kariwa, Niigata Prefecture.

“Both the state and the operators need to make further efforts in seeking people’s understanding on nuclear energy,” Koizumi told the Lower House Budget Committee.

Katsusada Hirose, vice minister of economy, trade and industry, said later the government will put together a high-ranking team to consider how to win public support for its MOX fuel program.

He said the team will consist of department head-level officials from the Cabinet Office and the foreign, general affairs, and science and technology ministries, as well as the chief of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said at a news conference he thinks the plebiscite result shows that the government failed to sufficiently explain its energy policy to the public.

Fukuda said the project is a “very important” part of the nations’ energy policy, and that the government will strive harder to garner support for it.

“We feel that there is a need to make further efforts to win understanding not only from the (village) residents, but from people of the nation,” Fukuda said.

A majority of the voters in the Kariwa plebiscite voted against the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plan to introduce MOX fuel at its local plant as part of the so-called “pluthermal” project. The plebiscite’s outcome is legally nonbinding.

The plant in question straddles the village and the neighboring city of Kashiwazaki.

On Monday evening, Kariwa Mayor Hiroo Shinada told a news conference that an atomic power council will be created to further consider whether the village will oppose the use of MOX fuel.

“An extremely serious judgment seems to have been made,” Shinada said. “If we simply look at the results, the village opposes the plan. However, we must make a final judgment in light of social responsibility and the public stance of the village, which accepted the project in advance.”

The Social Democratic Party asked the Natural Resources and Energy Agency on Monday to abandon its plan to use recycled nuclear fuel containing plutonium at the nuclear power plant after the local plebiscite rejected use of the fuel Sunday, party officials said.

The SDP called on agency chief Hirofumi Kawano to respect the result of the plebiscite, the officials said.

Tepco President Nobuya Minami earlier called the results of the poll “regrettable.”

“The need to introduce the pluthermal project has not changed, and we would like to proceed with the plan,” he said, though Tepco officials were quick to point out that the utility would not forcibly introduce the MOX plan.

The plant in question is the world’s largest in terms of nuclear power generation, producing 8.21 million kw a year and meeting 20 percent of Tepco’s total electricity demand. The utility serves the greater Tokyo area.

A village ordinance stipulates that the mayor and assembly must respect the poll’s outcome.

The government and power companies want to introduce MOX fuel in commonly used light-water reactors. The fuel is made by mixing uranium with plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel.

The method has been the key focus of Japan’s plutonium-recycling policy since a December 1995 sodium coolant leak led to a fire — and an official coverup attempt — at the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The reactor, which has not been restarted, was to have used MOX fuel.

Japan hopes to dispose of plutonium, produced as a byproduct from uranium in nuclear plants, to allay international concerns about the possibility of the country building nuclear weapons, because plutonium can be used to create such arms.

Utilities including Tepco and Osaka-based Kansai Electric Power Co. want to start using MOX fuel by 2010 at 16 to 18 reactors.

MOX fuel, however, has so far not been used at any of Japan’s nuclear plants as a result of the discovery in 1999 that British Nuclear Fuels PLC falsified data on MOX fuel for shipment to Japan.

Tepco wanted to introduce MOX fuel at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in mid-June, Tepco officials said.

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